Think about the last time you knocked an interview out of the park. How did you feel?
I bet you felt a connection with your interviewer.
On the other hand, you or your friends have probably been in situations where the interview fell flat because of a lack of interviewer chemistry. Have you ever thought, “I just couldn’t click with the interviewer,” following a difficult interview?
It happens to everyone.
You can’t control whom you are interviewing with, their deep-rooted biases, or their mood. It’s why I attribute ~20% of passing an interview to luck.
However, you can take steps to minimize the impact of luck by intentionally building chemistry with your interviewer.
Building rapport through conversation
Building rapport with your interviewer can make or break your interview. It can help you stand out as a memorable candidate instead of blurring together with the sea of other smart applicants.
One of my favorite strategies for building rapport with senior interviewers is to strike up an engaging conversation before the interview starts.
In many of my final round consulting interviews, I waited in the office lobby between interviews. My next interviewer would come by and introduce themselves, then we would walk to the interview room to proceed with the interview.
Between first meeting them and taking a seat in the interview room, there is a ~ 60-second window to start a conversation. There are 3 ways this can go:
- You nervously introduce yourself and limply shake the Partner’s hand, then quietly walk to the room. Bad start.
- You introduce yourself and shake the Partner’s hand, then walk to their office while making small talk. Better, but every other decent candidate will do the same.
- You confidently introduce yourself and firmly shake the Partner’s hand, then walk to their office while sparking an interesting conversation about their work. Great, already positioning yourself as a memorable candidate.
Initiating an interesting conversation takes practice. There’s no secret formula and the conversation varies by person and situation.
That being said, I do have a few suggestions to help you.
First, the golden rule: try to get the interviewer to talk about themselves. My best interviews were ones where the interviewer actively participated in the conversation.
It may be helpful to briefly research the interviewer on LinkedIn or Google to inform yourself of their Alma Mater, prior experience, nonprofit involvement, practice area/expertise, and any other relevant or interesting information.
Then, initiate a conversation with them prior to starting the interview. Here’s an example conversational flow. Keep in mind that conversations are never formulaic and this outline should not be taken literally:
- I start by confidently introducing myself and shaking their hand
- Then we spend 10-20 seconds making small talk, in which I ask how their day is going
- After breaking the ice, I’ll sometimes mention anything we have in common like where we are from, membership in an organization, or our University
- About 30 seconds into the introduction, I’ll shift the conversation towards something work-related by asking what they are working on
By now we are probably walking into the interview room and ready to sit down and begin. This is a pivotal moment in building an interesting and memorable conversation.
After the interviewer briefly explains their work, most candidates would say “cool” then quietly get their resume ready to begin the interview. Instead, I gently probe into their work by asking more open-ended questions.
From here, it’s about thinking on your feet and being genuinely curious about their work. This should be easy if you are actually excited about their job -- if you find their work boring you should reconsider why you want this offer.
By using this strategy, I’ve had interviews where we launched into a 30+ minute discussion about the interviewer’s work.
On one occasion, I had an interesting conversation with a consulting Partner about his work for nearly the entire final round interview. After realizing how deep in conversation we were and our limited remaining time, he started to ask me mini-case questions embedded in our conversation to quickly test my problem-solving skills.
Shortly after the interview, he called to extend an offer and mentioned that he really enjoyed our conversation. It was one of my favorite (and least stressful) interview experiences.
In other situations, the pre-interview conversation only lasted a few minutes because the interviewer wanted to begin the formal interview. That’s okay, you’ll still benefit from connecting with the interviewer early on.
I’ve found that attempting to start the interview with an interesting conversation projects confidence, curiosity, and likability to the interviewer. It starts the interview off on a strong note, builds rapport, and allows you to stand out from other candidates.
Lastly, do not underestimate the importance of approaching the interview with an enthusiastic attitude. Not only is this foundational for striking up an engaging conversation, but your energy can be contagious and leave the interviewer energized for the rest of their day.
At the end of the day, there is no substitute for knowing prepping and knowing your content -- ~80% of your success relies on your behaviorals, technicals, and company-specific knowledge.
But the right attitude and approach to building rapport can influence the outcome of your entire interview. And with the competitive nature of recruiting for top companies, you’ll want every advantage you can find.
During your next interview, try striking a pre-interview conversation, and let me know how it goes. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org -- I’d love to hear from you!